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Achang

Achang

ETHNONYMS: Daisa, Hansa, Mengsa, Mengsa-shan


Orientation

Identification. With a population of only 27,708 (1990 census), the Achang are a small ethnic group. They reside mainly in a multinational region of western Yunnan Province in China; a few live in the region's frontier with northeast Myanmar (Burma). Since the area contains other ethnic groups, primarily the neighboring Dai, Han (Chinese), and Jingpo, many aspects of their culture, such as language, dress, architecture, and religion, among others, are to a large extent not distinct.

Location. About 90 percent of Achang are concentrated in three communes (now townships) in Yunnan in the counties of Longchuan, Lianghe, and Luxi. The other 10 percent are spread across neighboring counties. The region is affected by the monsoon from the Indian Ocean. The subtropical areas where the Achang live are warm, rainy, and humid.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Achang is a branch of Tibeto-Burman in the Sino-Tibetan Family. The Achang language has two dialects: Fusa, which is influenced by Dai, Burmese, and Jingpo; and Lianghe, which mixes Chinese, Jingpo, and Lisu. Many Achang also speak the languages of the neighboring peoples (e.g., Dai, Chinese, Jingpo, and Burmese).


History and Cultural Relations

According to Chinese records, the ancestors of Achang were called "Xunchuan" in the Tang dynasty, 1,000 years ago. At that time, they had moved from the north and east into the western areas of Yunnan. The movement continued southward and westward in the following centuries. By the thirteenth century, they had migrated into and settled in the areas where the present-day Achang live, now the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture.


Settlements

The Achang live on small plains surrounded by mountains. The typical Achang village is located at the periphery of a plain or at the foot of a mountain. Generally a village consists of households representing several patrilines. Some Achang villages also include a number of households of other peoples, such as the Han, the Dai, and the Hui.

Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Achang are agriculturalists, with wet-rice cultivation the principal agricultural activity. The traditional cropping system of wet rice has been formed in the course of adjusting to the local climatic conditions. When atmospheric temperature is proper for sprouting seeds and the monsoon brings enough rain to the fields, the season for sowing begins. When the rainy season is over, the rice ear will be mature enough to harvest. After harvest, the rice is sorted into two portions: one set aside for use by the household in the following year, and one for payment of hired labor or land rent in the past or, since 1956, mandatorily sold to the government at a price set by the state. Besides rice, the Achang also cultivate some cash crops, such as sugarcane and oil crops in Lianghe and Luxi and tobacco in the Fusa plain area.

Industrial Arts. The Achang blacksmiths in the regions of Fusa and Lasa are very famous, particularly for making various types of knives and swords. Some say that the forging technique used by the Achang came from the weapon smiths of Chinese troops stationed in the Fusa region in the fourteenth century. Since then, the manufacturing of ironware has been a prosperous activity. A workshop is usually owned by several households. Often a village's workshops specialize in producing one type of productdagger, sickle, plowshare, chopper, horseshoe, or hoe. The manufacturing of ironware is seasonal, with the number of ironworkers often swelling to over half of the entire population of male laborers during the leisure season. During recent decades, some workshops based on cooperation and using modern equipment have grown into factories for the manufacture of ironware. Textile production, silversmithing, and carving and decoration for temples and other buildings are also well developed.

Trade. Purchasing pig iron and selling the end products constitutes the most important trade ventures in Fusa and Lasa. The pig iron comes from the Han traders, and the Achang sell the products to neighboring peoples and the Burmese. A few Achang people have become professional traders.

Land Tenure. A few centuries ago, all of the land in the Achang region belonged to Dai feudal lords and hereditary Achang chiefs. However, the ownership of most lands had already been transferred from the feudal owners to individual peasant families before the Agrarian Reform of 1956, although until 1956 everyone who owned land still had to pay tax to them, as a token recognition of the feudal lords' continuing ownership of all lands. As a result of the private ownership of land, tenancy and buying and selling of land between peasants became frequent. The government established the collective ownership of land in 1956 but transferred landownership to the People's Commune in 1969. In 1982, the authorities redivided the lands among the resident households.


Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. The members of a patrilineal descent group can be distributed over either a village or several villages, but all of the members trace their relationship through males to a common ancestor. In Lianghe County, there is a patriarchal organization that prevails in local Achang communities. The organization has its own rules and a patriarch who is elected from among the senior males. General disputes between the members can be settled by the organization. As for marrying with Han people, some patriarchal organizations also include some Han under a common surname.

Kinship Terminology. Achang kin terms basically follow the Eskimo system. One exception is that there is only one kin term for each of the following pairs: brother and male cousin; sister and female cousin; son and nephew; and daughter and niece.

Marriage. There are no restrictions on marriage except that an individual must marry outside his or her patrilineage. Although the Achang allow boys and girls to be "in love," marriages are mostly arranged by parents for somewhat of a mercenary purpose. In the past, a young man could contract a marriage by snatching his chosen bride away. Decades ago, the Achang often practiced levirate.

Domestic Unit and Inheritance. The patriarchal family that includes two or three generations is the basic family unit. A young man, if not the youngest son of his parents, usually establishes a place of residence apart from his parents when he marries. The youngest son lives with the parents and inherits either the parents' house and property or the responsibility of taking care of the parents. Women receive a dowry but do not inherit unless they have no brothers.


Sociopolitical Organization

The Achang are politically subordinate to the Han and Dai. Before 1949, Achang society was still at the chiefdom level of political development. The Achang, along with other ethnic peoples (the Dai, Han, Jingpo, and Lisu), formed separate multiethnic political units, each governed by a Dai feudal lord or a localized Han feudal lord. The hereditary feudal lord possessed paramount power of administration, adjudication, and supervision of military affairs in the area under his jurisdiction. The village was the basic unit of administration, governed by a village head who was usually elected by villagers and approved by the feudal lord. Several villages were governed by an officer who was appointed by the feudal lord. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Communist central government has carried out the system of the regional autonomy of minority nationalities in the Achang areas.

Religion and Expressive Culture

In the regions of Fusa and Lasa almost all Achang are adherents of Theravada Buddhism, which the Achang people adopted from the Dai. Both the Achang and the Dai are similar in many aspects of their practice of Buddhism. In the regions of Lianghe, Luxi, and elsewhere, the Achang people are not Buddhists but worship ancestor spirits and various objects. The Achang generally label the spirits or gods as good or evil. There is an altar for making sacrifices to the spirits of ancestors in most households. In addition, many villages have a public temple, in which the people enshrine certain gods and hold sacrificial rites.

Arts. Of Achang folk arts, their carving may leave the deepest impression on outsiders. The lifelike animals and plants carved on woodwork or metalwork manifest the consummate skill of Achang carvers.

See also Dai; Jingpo


Bibliography

National Minorities Commission, Yunnan Provincial Editorial Group, ed. (1986). Achangzu jianshi (A concise history of the Achang). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

Yunnan Institute of History, ed. (1983). "The Achang." In Yunnan shaoshu minzu (Yunnan minority peoples). Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.


TAN LESHAN

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